Shell inspiration: turning nature’s secrets into engineering solutions

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Engineering


The properties of a material are strongly affected by its microscopic structure, a phenomenon that can often be seen in nature. This is clearly evident in the shells of molluscs such as mussels. These seashells exhibit magnificently diverse shapes, patterns and colours. In addition, they have a toughness similar to steel whilst being much lighter. These fascinating characteristics are the result of the way that shells are made from organised building blocks of calcium carbonate (the mineral found in chalk). In nature, the combination of these building blocks is exquisitely controlled throughout growth.

The ability to use nature's secrets learned from shell growth would be invaluable in manufacturing high performance materials with unprecedented properties. To realise this, we first need to learn how nature controls the formation and assembly of the building blocks of a shell - calcium carbonate. In this proposal, we will develop a new approach to enable an in-depth understanding of this natural controlling process, and then exploit the knowledge for producing novel material that are inspired by nature. At the core of our approach is the "Electronically Programmable Microfluidic Fountain Array" (EPMFA), a tool to create biomimetic conditions for the investigation. The EPMFA will enable us to control all of the aspects of organising building blocks (such as calcium carbonate), from features only visible with the best microscopes; through to the overall shape and size of the material that we are creating.

We will start off with a focus on a single example material, Mother-of-Pearl, and then exploit what we have learnt to create novel structures based on the same building blocks. This new material will be specifically designed so that it could be used as part of a medical implant, with properties that would greatly benefit bone reconstruction or joint replacement.

We envisage the knowledge gained will significantly enhance our abilities in creative manufacturing, and will benefit a very wide range of areas, from medicine to climate change. By using building blocks beyond calcium carbonate, our techniques will let us design and manufacture new materials with unique combinations of optical, magnetic, electronic, chemical and mechanical properties. The uses for these materials will be almost endless.

Planned Impact

As with academic beneficiaries, industrial impact can be broken down into two time scales: immediate/short term, mid to long term. In the short term, we envisage considerable technology translation to companies with whom we have worked in the past (including Unilever, GSK, LGC, InVibio) activities. We anticipate these immediate benefits will be in the areas of tissue engineering and chemotherapy treatments, both serving the needs of a rapidly ageing population as well as improving health and well-being. For this, we plan to work together with our existing industrial collaborator (see above) and an extended network accessible via our academic collaborators. We will also identify other potential industrial stakeholders and medical clinicians within the UK through Nexxus (central Scotland's research, innovation and knowledge transfer network for life sciences) and relevant KTNs. Outside of the UK, our collaborator, Professor Chen is based in the West-China hospital, one of the largest hospitals in China. We will use this to extend our links and collaborations with healthcare sectors through evaluations and trials in China.

We envisage our long term industrial benificaries will be those engaged in the innovative manufacture of high value products requiring powerful fabrication methods for controlling the interface between dissimilar materials. These interfaces are often key in the performance of composites and hybrid devices associated with renewable energy, transducers or sensors (e.g photovoltaic cells, catalysts, thermoelectrics). We will work with GU's Research and Enterprise team, the various TSB delivery vehicles (e.g KTN, CRD, KTP's, etc) and present the work in commercially oriented sessions of high profile conferences. Importantly, through GU's now firmly established spin-out company, Kelvin Nanotechnology there is a route to making EPFMA demonstrator systems and small numbers of devices for companies to trial out. A more extensive manufacturing effort could be provided by SMEs working in the field of microfluidic systems (e.g. Syrrus Ltd and Epigem Ltd) with whom we work in TSB funded programs.

In year 2, we will look to exploit and make an impact with our IP by applying for funding for follow-on activities. Depending on whether these are commercial, basic, or applied research, appropriate sources of funding and expertise include First Step awards, KTPs and EPSRC KTA or other awards. We have already had success with all of these funding schemes in other projects.

The project will have direct impact on Knowledge transfer, training of young people and public awareness. This will be achieved by transferring our innovations from a research driven activity to a reliable 'manufacturing' phase (through technical staff and Kelvin Nanotechnology). This ensures continuity of know-how, benefiting our collaborations as well as future IP exploitation. The PGs and researchers in our collaborators' labs will benefit from early exposure to this multidisciplinary research, obtaining knowledge and skills in micro- and nanoscale experimental technologies. Research projects that use this platform will also be designed for MRes students associated with the cross-University Proteomics DTC.

Engineering inspired by nature, as well as novel materials with therapeutic applications holds the potential to generate considerable public interest through analogies with what takes place in the world around us. We will utilize this interest to raise public awareness (especially with school students) in Engineering and Science through the mainstream media and internet. To this end, GU's Media Relations Office is very good at generating press interest projects. We will also use our experience of the Nuffield Science Bursary scheme to offer projects to schools based on a simplified microfluidic platform to observe crystal growth.


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Description The properties of a material are strongly affected by its microscopic structure. In this project, we have developed several novel methods to fabricate functional biomaterials with precisely controlled mechanical, geometry and chemical properties at high spatial resolution. We found that biological cells were highly sensitive to the local properties of the materials and change their fate accordingly. By creating a biomimetic collagenous "basket" enveloping individual chondrocytes cells, we have developed an effective way to harvest phenotypic chondrocytes for the treatment of cartilage damage. In addition, using microfluidic extrusion, we were able to assemble multiple cell types, biopolymers and biominerals into an osteon-like fibre, which shows great potential in bone reconstruction. Importantly, to explore its potential for large scale processes, we have developed a "microfluidic printing head" and an "all in-liquid process" that enable the assembly of biomolecules, cells and materials into large sized, bioactive scaffolds.
Exploitation Route We believe that dissemination of the findings in peer-reviewed, high-impact journals is an effective way to reach a broad range of researchers. To date, the project has contributed to three high profile papers, with another three manuscripts in the process for publication. All of our publications were made open access, and are freely available from public Internet websites.

The outcome of the project has already led to new discoveries in other fields, and will continue to serve as a solid basis for new exploitations in various fields, ranging from basic life science research (e.g. developmental biology and cancer research) to functional materials
Sectors Chemicals,Healthcare,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

Description To disseminate our findings in a timely manner, we have been presenting our results at a number of conferences and invited seminars, as well as providing prototypes to potential users. This has successfully pump-primed new collaborations, and successfully spun out several substantial national and international projects. For example, we have successfully explored our technology in environmental science and water treatment through our collaboration with Professor Shi's group in Tsinghua University. We initiated new collaborations with developmental biologists ( Professor Davis at the University of Edinburgh) and biomaterial scientists (Professor Fan at Sichuan University, China) to broadly evaluate the impact of our technology in the healthcare sector. All of these collaborations have not only generated new discoveries (as evidenced in the publication list), but also significantly enhance our understanding of challenges in the modern society and the potential of multidisciplinary approaches to address these challenges.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Environment,Healthcare,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology
Impact Types Societal,Economic

Description Newton Advanced Fellowships
Amount £105,000 (GBP)
Funding ID NA170113 
Organisation The Royal Society 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2017 
End 12/2020
Description Standard research grant
Amount £577,256 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/P011063/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2017 
End 04/2020
Description Collaboration with Nissan Chem Ltd. 
Organisation Nissan Chemical Industries Ltd
Country Japan 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution We have developed a microfluidic system that will be used in hospital diagnosis.
Collaborator Contribution Directly funded research and visiting scientists.
Impact PCT application Publications in preparation
Start Year 2013
Description Collabration with Edingburgh University 
Organisation University of Edinburgh
Department Centre for Integrative Physiology
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Shared our findings and technology
Collaborator Contribution Evaluation of our prototype devices.
Impact A manuscript for publication is in preparation.
Start Year 2013
Description Collabration with Sichuan University 
Organisation Sichuan University
Country China 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Shared our findings and provided prototype devices.
Collaborator Contribution Contribute a PhD student and custom synthesized biomaterials.
Impact A manuscript for publication is in preparation.
Start Year 2013
Description Collabration with Tsinghua University 
Organisation Tsinghua University China
Department School of Enviroment
Country China 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Shared our technology, and hosted the exchange researchers
Collaborator Contribution Researchers, Links with industries, funding for the secondment of the researchers.
Impact Have already generated two high profile papers. The collaboration is multidisciplinary, involving environmental science, water engineering and biomedical engineering.
Start Year 2012